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Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

Tyler Kinzy

Tyler Kinzy

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

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It begins with a schedule filled to the brim with honors and AP classes to gain the upper hand in a frenzied GPA free-for-all, followed by several more hours allocated to an extensive array of athletics and extracurricular activities to further embellish one’s résumé. All of this occurs before topping the day off with tutoring sessions and preparation aimed at eking as many points out of standardized tests as possible.

The common denominator in this modern-day high school mayhem? A K-12 education system that views acceptance into the most prestigious universities as the end goal above all else. A Johns Hopkins research study found that 73 percent of parents believed it was “very important for their child to attend a top-level college/university” while 81 percent considered it crucial to their child’s eventual success in the workforce. Besides the hefty price of tuition, we as a society have refused to collectively pause and ask ourselves: at what cost do today’s youth partake in the heated competition that continues to seize a stranglehold on every aspect of their lives?

There is almost certainly nonzero correlation between the academic environment high schools foster and the rising prevalence of youth mental health issues. With the notion that anything short of an Ivy League diploma is failure instilled into teeanagers’ psyches, student stress levels have skyrocketed. In 2015, more than nine million adolescents suffered from an anxiety disorder or major depressive episode, alarming figures that continue to climb as the pressure for perfection mounts. The Harvard School of Education surveyed over 10,000 middle and high school students, with an overwhelming 48 percent identifying their own achievements as the utmost priority. Rather than kindle genuine interests for learning as teenagers catch their first glimpses of the adult world, the perceived value of attending an elite college has transformed high schools across America into places where students can buttress their college applications by piling on accolades and Advanced Placement credentials.

I am one of the students who has felt this burden to check all the proverbial boxes that differentiate the supposed winners from the losers in the eyes of college admissions offices. A student of Parkway’s MOSAICS Academy program since the third grade, the path to Cambridge, Mass. or Stanford, Calif. was presented as an expectation as opposed to a potential option that may or may not best suit me.

After exhausting the list of math courses offered at West Middle in seventh grade, my Academy peers and I spent each morning the following year at West High for our math class, and since we had also completed the highest level of middle school science classes, we were enrolled in Honors Biology as well. Sensing that my love for learning had gradually burned out after years of nonstop accelerated classes, my parents suggested I not take an additional honors course on top of an already rigorous workload. They claimed that my desire to become the perfect applicant universities salivate over created an unhealthy imbalance between academia and time to explore the numerous wonders of being a kid. Retrospectively, I recognize that I was exhibiting symptoms oftentimes associated with depression.

The ensuing debate pitted my protests, predicated entirely on the GPA boost that honors classes provide, against their concern for my well-being. It became increasingly clear that this decision would dictate whether or not I, at the tender age of 12 years old, went all in on the race for acceptance into top-tier universities. Ultimately, my objections were overruled and of the eighth graders who took classes on West High’s campus, the only one not in an Honors Biology classroom was me.

In the school year that followed, I watched as one of my closest friends exited class with tears rolling down their cheeks, fearful that, at just 13 years of age, a science fair project would sink their cumulative GPA, an outcome they were convinced would inevitably resign them to a miserable lifestyle. This is the reality that setting the goal of achieving college elitism perpetuates. These students weren’t racking their brains with the nuances of mitosis because cell division fascinated them. Rather, they were sacrificing a substantial portion of their childhood to gain a leg up in the looming college admissions process.

Some may call the alternate route that I opted for as lazy, the type of choice made by somebody who prefers the easy way out. “He displayed a lack of academic rigor,” an Ivy League school may say as they slam their doors shut. However, I have since come around to consider the decision I made as a calculated tradeoff.

I cashed in hours previously spent frantically cramming content I would mentally discard the next day anyway for participation in school plays, performances on the Running With Scissors improv team and competition at speech and debate tournaments. I was hired to write statistical analysis articles about the St. Louis Cardinals for SB Nation’s Viva El Birdos blog in what has been a remarkable first job experience. I forwent amassing National Honors Society service hours to arrange meetings with state legislators. It was expending precious schedule slots on courses I enjoyed rather than those with honors or AP distinguishment that enabled me to join the Pathfinder staff in the first place.

This philosophy regarding high school may very well cost me the Harvard or Yale acceptance letters my peers so desperately covet. To that I would counter with my growing sense of self-fulfillment. My average day is just as intellectually stimulating, but directing greater attention towards my passions has made me a happier individual now than ever before. No piece of paper can replace that.

The high school experience is a one-time offer. No mulligans. No do-overs. To my fellow students, I urge you not to squander what remains of your childhood years in the name of a shot at the wrong target.

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9 Responses to “Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal”

  1. Susan Santhufft on September 4th, 2018 12:27 pm

    Wow Tyler! Wise beyond your years, with wise and loving parents to boot! Glad you figured all this out, and I hope many of your peers and their parents listen. You have a very bright future to look forward to!

  2. Mrs. Braungardt on September 4th, 2018 7:20 pm

    Fantastic article! Wisdom is much greater and worth more than what could ever be found in books and classrooms. Your article is full of wisdom and I pray it will speak loudly to others. Well written and courageous!

  3. shafiq khuhro on September 5th, 2018 6:48 am

    Bravo Tyler! I am more than proud of you grand son. It appears you have found the meaning of life. Life is for living , so enjoy it and help your fellow beings while yoy are at it. Looks like you are doing it and will continue to do so with that attitude.

  4. Allyson Lane on September 5th, 2018 9:15 am

    Your article is wonderful! High school should be about the experiences; trying out different courses and activities. The emphasis should be on discovering what you love, like, tolerate or dislike. Students certainly don’t need more stress in middle school either. Middle school is filled with enough social & emotional stress. You should share your article with the administrators in charge of the Mosaics Academy. Your experience & perspective is important. I’m glad you were able to figure out which learning path was best for you!

  5. Evelyn Tarpy on September 6th, 2018 3:58 pm

    Great article, Tyler. I was so happy when you followed your parents’ advice and allowed yourself to pursue your other interests (drama, debate and improve). ALthough I was, of course, so proud of your academic achievements, the stress you were feeling in middle school was just wrong and worried me. I hope more “gifted” students will hear your message!

    Grandma E

  6. Rebecca Ellison on September 7th, 2018 10:38 am

    Well said, Tyler! Honest and Brave! You are such a talent!

  7. Rick Hasler on September 10th, 2018 2:28 pm

    This is a very well-written article, and your points are well-taken. It is important to remember that the MOSAICS Academy has, and always will be, a choice in programming. No part of the Academy is compulsory. It is regrettable that the level of stress that some students and their families put themselves through is so high, but in contrast to the experience you have related here, there are also students and families that do feel that the focus of the MOSAICS Academy is on target for them as individuals. That being said, both middle and high school are times for students to explore options and ideas in and out of the classroom. In fact, one of the primary goals of the Academy is to accelerate students so that they have options such as SPARK! or electives they might not be able to fit in their schedule otherwise. Thanks for your perspective, and I am glad you are finding time and ways to enjoy your life.

  8. Emily Dickson on November 14th, 2018 5:49 pm

    Wow. Tyler, I am so impressed by your refreshing, intelligent writing, and your bravery to tackle this unfortunately avoided subject. Thank you for putting words to an issue that I and many others faced in high school. Keep up the good work. So proud to have been part of the Pathfinder family!

  9. Kareem Deanes on November 14th, 2018 6:31 pm

    Tyler, you hit the nail on the head. I remember the pressure to succeed hitting me so hard at one point during my college years that it caused numbness in my shoulder down to my left hand. I watch as students like yourself wrap themselves into knots over coursework. I hope someday soon the pendulum swings the other way and reward play as much as we give power to test scores assessments. For truly the greatest measure of success is happiness. Well done young man!

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